Sitting in a café in Montparnasse, in the shadow of that hideous tower with the roller rink on the roof, with waiters wearing cheap boaters advertising the new-vintage Beaujolais, I feel part of the scenery. Scarf, coffee, laptop, check.
Pushed up against the doors of a packed métro carriage, I’m just another body in a city crowded with beings, schmooshed shoulder to shoulder in a tunnel, buried in a book that is itself partially buried in the backpack of the bloke next to me. My arm is thrust through a gap to grip the back of a seat, so I’m not flung, when the driver stamps on the breaks, into the lap of the person sitting on the fold-down seat. I’m glaring at the person sitting on the fold-down seat.
Running through the park, I blend in – another body in motion in a stream of black Lycra.
I’ve gone native. On the outside.
On the inside, expat life remains as perplexing as ever, and I often wonder if it is sustainable. I’m not a joiner, I’m happy enough in my own company, but I’m not sure I’m cut out for life as a perpetual outsider, either. As anyone who has stood on the edge of the school playground dressed identically to everyone else knows, looking as if you belong does not always translate to feeling part of the gang.
This week, an article about the trials of expat life has got me thinking. Among my many, many misconceptions about what life in France would be like was the idea that the feelings of being an outsider, lost, adrift from a previous cherished life, friends and family, would diminish with time. In fact, the opposite is true. Five years after arriving in Paris, I float through this limestone fairy tale untethered as ever.
Yes, many aspects are now as familiar as my apartment, or moving in that direction, at least. I have jobs. I have my favourite hangouts (not in Montparnasse, although it’s a perfectly charming quartier). I have good friends. Language is easier. Navigation. Etiquette. Dress codes. Annual rhythms such as the mass summer departure from Paris and its corollary, rentrée. Yet the troubling irony persists: the deeper your knowledge of the unknown, the more profound the alienation.
It’s a bit like learning a language, or swing dancing, anything with a degree of complexity. I was complaining (again) about my lack of French progress to a buddy recently. She gently pointed out that we continue to move our own goalposts, placing them ever just out of reach. The objectives change. I used to dream of executing a simple exchange without saying bonjour when I meant merci. Now I want to feel at ease in a group conversation. The more you know, the more you understand the enormity what you don’t know. And, in the case of language and culture, there is a creeping realization that you might never achieve mastery.
This raises the question: how long can I stand being an outsider? Must I adjust my thinking about belonging? Can I go full Schrodinger on the situation and be simultaneously both in Paris and somewhere else entirely? Is this, in fact, the key?
I spend a lot of time on social media. Not as much as I would if I had a smartphone, but hours daily nevertheless, many of which are taken up following news from Australia, what my friends are up to, what the newspapers are saying, Rachel Maddow. The usual stuff.
Now, social media is a curious variable in the expat-adjustment equation, it seems to me. It’s useful for finding out what’s on, places you might meet people who share your interests, language exchanges. Pretty much any blog or newspaper article that addresses expat life suggests meet-ups, and the like, as a way to settle in.
But social media adds a complication to the bubble. Thanks to a stream of news and messages on Facebook, I can maintain one foot in my old life. Multiple outlets like Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest would surely only magnify the problem. I can’t imagine being without it, but I do wonder if this split attention is prolonging my settling-in period. It has allowed me to ignore real-world loneliness by burying myself in television from home and the UK and indulging in the FB gossip mill. On low days, faced with a choice between sitting alone in a café, even one where I’m recognized and greeted warmly, or watching just one more episode of The Katering Show or Have I Got News for You, it’s easy to trump for the latter.
Now, in my defense and in a protest-too-much attempt to dilute the impression that I ungratefully lead a hermetically sealed life, I must point out that I often undertake my freelance work in a café, surrounded by the buzz of human activity. I do the things the articles advise: running group, swing-dancing classes, repeated appearances in the same place to develop familiarities with other habitués. I’m tackling French. I’m avidly inhaling the culture.
And I’m not complaining. Although I wish I knew how to get through this better, I’d never have forgone the experience. My life goals have long including living in another country, learning a language, becoming a fiction writer. Check.